It Is About Us All: Claudia Rankine’s Uncovering of Race and Her Strategic Use of the Lyrical “You”
I became familiar with poet Claudia Rankine after attending a graduate class in American Literature held by Professor Giovanna Covi, and I got lost in Rankine’s language after reading an essay called “Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary” my classmate and friend Sumia had shared with me. I began reading this essay with the tools I have collected during Covi’s class. The common thread lacing her lectures together was the pivotal role aesthetics plays in literature when speaking of the world. In other words, the potential poetic style and poetic language have when discussing our reality in just, inclusive and open terms. Poetically speaking, this longing translates into forging language and making stylistic choices that welcome the voices of America’s sprawling multiplicity and multicultural identity under the overarching umbrella of what we call “American Literature”. Rowing in this same direction, the 1960’s and early 1970’s registered a deep transformation in poetry, urged by the appearance of poems that were explicitly female and vastly multicultural. Through an array of innovative voices, these “new” poems attempted to open the lyric to the multiple subjectivities that are crowding our everyday reality, and to speak of their intimate relation with the world through a lens up to then unexplored. To quote feminist poet and activist Adrienne Rich, the new focus of these poetry is to refuse a definition of poetry that does not include these writers and that does not speak to them, for the reason that “there can be no definition of poetry except in actual poems – which are as disparate and various (and interlinked) as people and cultures are.” (Rich 1993)
Thus, the innovative aspect of the new poetic debate pivots around two key words: intimacy and pluralism. Although these two terms seem to have opposite meanings, they are actually one the evolution of the other. The inclusion in the literary mainstream of various subjectivities corresponds to including a plurality of voices various readers can connect with. This is the inclusion poems sought for: to give the poet the possibility to explore their own personal condition through a lyrical “I” that is both personal (it embodies the poet’s intimate relation with the world) and collective (readers can identify with the lyrical I).
So the more the poems the better.
Different poems have different effects on different readers (Burt 13). In fact, if two people read the same poem they are likely to have a different take on it. However, the collective reach the poem wishes to perform regards our shared condition of living in the this world as human beings, and, more specifically, of living in the United States as American citizens. In fact, according to Claudia Rankine, one’s personal position within the world and one’s personal view of that world are reflective of a bigger positioning, which is that of our physical context itself. In a 2016 interview with Christopher Lydon, Rankine traces the connection between the personal realm of the individual and the bigger picture, by explaining how standing in the poet’s life as it exists and examining that life also means to look at America (Open Source).
So what does America look like to Rankine today?
Claudia Rankine was born is Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963, and moved to New York at the age of six. For her to look at America means to understand what kind of relationship she, an AfroCaribbean American woman, can build with a society that is highly racialized, and in which acts of racism are happening on an everyday basis, although they seem to be swept under the carpet. “I was always aware that my value in our culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost”, she says (Muhammad). A racialized society is one in which people are defined by their race, namely by their being “white” or “black”. However, living in society as a raced white American or as a raced black American is definitely not the same. It also means that one’s race always gets in the middle of life, impinging upon one’s existence, starting from the most minimal exchanges (ordering a coffee at the café and being treated a certain way because of one’s race), to actual conversations one has with a friend. Nevertheless, what is at the core of the American racial divide is a common and reinforced false belief that when one speaks of race black people are the only ones targeted. Just by thinking about a few key concepts one can understand the misconception of these statements and the unjust privilege it has created in American society. According to the Online Encyclopedia of the University of Winnipeg, racialization refersto “the processes by which a group of people is defined by their “race”. Processes of racialization begin by attributing racial meaning to people’s identity and, in particular, as they relate to social structures and institutional systems, such as housing, employment, and education. In societies in which “White” people have economic, political, and social power, processes of racialization have emerged from the creation of a hierarchy in social structures and systems based on “race.” The visible effects of processes of racialization are the racial inequalities embedded within social structures and systems”. This being said Rankine’s idea of a just poetics might come in handy. “It is not about American life and then Black life, but Black life as American life” (Smiley “Interview”). But then again, acts of racism against the black body are testimony to the racial divide, namely the social and emotional distance that is cracking the nation. If on the one hand Rankine recognizes in the white population a lack of awareness concerning their privileged position as American citizens, on the other hand the black community struggles with feeling full inclusivity and agency as citizens in their society.
To speak openly about race means to recognize its constructed nature, while acknowledging that it actually involves all of us as citizens. It means to understand that whiteness is as much a construction as blackness. It means to uncover the power and privilege that comes with it, but most importantly it means to talk openly about it.
This is where Claudia Rankine’s strategic use of the lyrical “you” joins the picture, crowing the pages of her poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric.
Rankine’s repetitive use of “you” contributes to the repositioning the lyric is demanding today, as it directly deals with the dilemma poetry faces when wishing to address the intimate realm of the poetess, that of her readers, and of her poetic personas, longing to trace a connection among them all.
Published in 2014, her collection filled bookstore’s shelves in the blink of an eye. The current events she recounts and the style she uses to recount them is what immediately caught my attention. Rankine herself has called the book an attempt to “pull the lyric back into its realities”. In Contemporary America those realities overlap with everyday acts of microaggression she or people she knows have lived, and that were prompted by their skin color. In other words, they are subtle acts of racism, whether intentional or not, verbal or behavioural, that communicate some kind of prejudice and hostility towards a group that has been historically marginalized for power reasons only. Many of these occurrences were collected from phone conversations Rankine had with her friends. Although these stories happened to people she knew, she does not tell us whom they are, and the use of “you” does not make it easier to understand it. In fact, with this small device, she is addressing both the intimate sphere of the reader and voicing her poetic persona, while opening the poem to the collective potential the second person pronoun encourages.
The lyrical “you” is a great rhetorical strategy of “flipping it back to you” (Open Source), and through which every single reader may feel addressed or called into the picture. However, as the “you” implicates both the reader and Rankine’s personas, it has the powerful capacity of turning us all into the “citizens of the book, citizens who are experiencing what happens in the narrations, or feel disconnected from the instances that are portrayed; the book lends to both possibilities of encounter (Open Source).
Her “you”, and the action of immediate addressability the pronoun communicates, is a pivotal tool for the reader to seek a form of connection with, or an immediate separation from the occurrences that are shared. All acts of racism, and the addressability fostered by these acts, begin once bodies are made visible. In fact, by using the second person Rankine performs an act of self-othering by turning all readers into the addressees of her text. Through this peculiar mode of address, Rankine calls the readers discursively at issue by having them live the experience of constantly being exposed to tacit or explicit acts of racism. The practical outcome of such a rhetorical strategy may result either in the experiential overlapping of readers and personas, or in the unavoidable discrepancy between the lived identity of the reader and the experiences and emotions, ascribed to readers by virtue of the poem’s direct mode of address.
Let us look directly at an example taken directly from the book:
Another friend tells you you have to learn not to absorb the world. She says sometimes she can hear her own voice saying silently to whomever – you are saying this thing and I am not going to accept it. Your friend refuses to carry what doesn’t belong to her.
You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition. (55)
The solution the friend suggests to one’s feeling addressable seems to be a result of her privileged position expressed by the nonchalance with which she proposes to reject any external definition of identity. The ease with which the speaker’s friend in the first fragments seems able to push away any unwanted influence from the external world, is a position the speaker is seldom in or ignores altogether. In fact, hailed by acts of microaggression, the speaker is amazed by the swiftness of their occurrence and their dismissal. The same dismissal her friend makes manifest in the first fragment, as she ignores the vulnerability, exhaustion and frustration her friend needs to negotiate daily. As written in the first line of the second fragment, taking in what feels uncomfortable about the world is not a voluntary act from the speaker’s part. It is the result of feeling addressable to microaggressions that ordinary moments reveal. But they are not revealed to everyone. Her friend is probably oblivious to the underlying meanings the quotidian acts enclose, as her identity is not culturally addressable to structural racism.
Now, confronted with this fragment, whom do readers sympathize with? Where does one’s sympathy shut off? (Rankine and Loffreda par. 7) Are they able to shut out the unpleasantness of the world like the first extract suggests, or do they share the vulnerability expressed by the speaker’s inability to “not absorb the world”? By employing the second person pronoun, Rankine distances herself from the situation she shares and places her readers in front of these two experiential possibilities: to establish a connection with the occurrence or withdraw from it, namely to question to which extent one’s position can contribute to the reinforcement of structures of power through one’s everyday use of language. The use of “you” leaves the option open for the reader who is nevertheless addressed, in spite of where they decide to stand. At this point, many questions are raised from the reader’s part,
What is my position in this poem? Do I feel addressed by this “you”? If I don’t, why is that?
This being said, the speaker of the poems is grating an invitation to the reader, an invitation that dispenses a certain amount of effort to accept, as it uncovers our daily contribution to subtle acts of racism we think we have no connection with or no responsibilities towards. In fact, sometimes we may want to pull away from the text, and the same act of pulling away, is in itself a response to one kind of engagement with the text and the situation depicted in the text. That same resistance is what is crucial for Claudia Rankine, as she questions, “At which point is there just acceptance and resisting to seeing.”
These are the questions that we, as white people, must ask ourselves to be part of the textual experience, and most of all to allow ourselves to participate in the human experience as responsible human beings and citizens of the world.
di Livia Bellardini
Burt, Stephanie. Don’t Read Poetry. Basic Books, 2019.
Muhammad, Ismail. “Claudia Rankine’s Quest for Racial Dialogue.” The Atlantic, October 2020.
Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, Beacon Press, 1986.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin, 2014. Rich, Adrienne. “Poetry and Experience: Statement at a Poetry Reading”, 1964.
Rich, Adrienne. What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Norton,1993.
The University of Winnipeg Libguides. https://libguides.uwinnipeg.ca/c.php?g=370387&p=2502732.
Rankine, Claudia. “Poetess Claudia Rankine on poetry & microaggressions | Open Source CBC Radio| 2016 Aug 30.”
YouTube, uploaded by Adreana Langston, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OYtF7KBrVU&t=960s.
Rankine, Claudia, and Beth Loffreda. “On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary. When Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Life of Others.”
Literary Hub, April 9, 2015. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racialimaginary/.
Simecek, Karen. “Cultivating Intimacy: The Use of the Second Person in lyric poetry.” Academia, 2019.
Smiley, Tavis. ‘Interview with Claudia Rankine’. PBS News, 2014.